Arrests have been made in South Africa as anti-immigrant violence spreads to parts of Johannesburg's commercial heart.

Police fired more rubber-coated steel bullets at a crowd of anti-immigrant protesters in downtown Johannesburg on Friday afternoon, as they tried to separate the protesters from a group of immigrants.

In Gauteng province, of which Johannesburg is the capital city, police arrested 18 people after overnight street battles, Major-General Phumzo Gela, deputy police commissioner, said on Friday afternoon.

Earlier on Friday, police clashed with a crowd of South Africans in Johannesburg's Jeppestown area.

The crowd carrying hammers and axes gathered near the city centre, chanting "Foreigners must leave."

Groups of South Africans in Jeppestown and Cleveland blocked roads with rocks and burning tyres and then ordered foreigners to leave the country, police said.

Jeppestown and Cleveland are neighbourhoods adjoining the Johannesburg Central Business District (CBD).

A number of shops in the CBD were reported to have been looted and vandalised, further escalating tensions between foreigners and South Africans in Johanneburg.

Police said the suspects were trying to break into shops owned by foreigners.

Colonel Dlamini, police spokesperson, told Al Jazeera calm had been restored, but refused to reveal whether police had received credible reports of further threats of violence against foreigners in the city.

Violence targeting immigrants started earlier in April in the port city of Durban, claiming the lives of six people so far.

Rumours circulating

Rumours of imminent attacks on foreigners have continued to affect foreign nationals in Johannesburg.

Ahmed Fifa, a 35-year-old shop owner in the Ramaphosa settlement east of Johannesburg, said foreign nationals were warned by locals to vacate the area on Thursday night.

"One of the community leaders came to us and told us to move all our stuff and save our lives," he said.

Confrontation in Jeppestown

- Mukelwa Hlatshwayo, Al Jazeera producer


"We are currently in downtown Johannesburg's Jeppestown area where locals and foreign nationals have been involved in sporadic clashes.

People had gathered here earlier in the morning and were dispersed by police, but they have returned to the area.

During the early hours of Friday morning, there were street fights: people were burning cars and there were reports that foreigner-owned shops had been burgled as well.

Police are currently trying to disperse the crowd but both groups are determined and refuse to stand down.

There are about 200 people on each side and they are refusing to disperse. The situation is tense, but appears to be contained to this part of Jeppestown only. Jeppestown has a high concentration of foreign nationals from various countries.

I am currently seeing mainly Nigerian and Congolese nationals. They say that they will not disperse and the government needs to do more to resolve the situation.

Meanwhile, we are getting reports that the Department of International Relations and Cooperation is holding a press conference where it has apologised to the diplomatic corps and stated that the spate of violence, some of it fuelled by criminal elements, is by no means a reflection of of the broader country."

According to Fifa, the South Africans in Ramaphosa are divided between those who seek to protect foreigners and those intent on violently driving foreigners out.

"I can't go back until the situation remains stable," Fifa said. "I have seen the pictures of what happened in Durban and I need to save my life.

"The only problem we have here is the xenophobia."

In Durban, where six people have been killed in the last two weeks of violence against immigrants, police spokesperson Jay Naicker a fragile calm had been maintained on Friday.

"Overnight we had no reported incidents and it has been calm," Naicker said, adding that the police had not received reports of further threats against immigrants in coastal city.

He said foreigners would still not be re-integrated into the affected communities.

"The area is still tense and the police and security deployment will remain for a while," Naicker said.

Amir Sheikh, chairperson of the Somali Community Board based in Johannesburg, said the violence in Durban has inflamed tensions between South Africans and foreigners.

"Some of our members have been harassed in Johannesburg following the violence in Durban," he said.

Late on Thursday a widely disseminated text message claimed that "a train of Zulus" had departed for Johannesburg.

"These men are armed and they are going to be killing any foreigner they meet tomorrow," the text message said.

The source of these messages remains unclear, but their proliferation has sowed panic and confusion among migrant communities.

While these rumours have so far, proven to be false, its effects have already been felt.

Foreign owned stores around Johannesburg have been closed for at least two days already.

"The unfounded rumours have caused more damage to our members than anything else," Sheikh said.

In the southern province of Eastern Cape, a local website has reported that four foreign-owned stores were looted in the town of Cala. 

On Thursday South African President Jacob Zuma and leaders of the opposition in parliament spoke out against the violence against foreign nationals.

Zuma said that the majority of South Africans were "generally not xenophobic."

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has received news reports that in South Africa's neighbouring country of Mozambique, crowds have reportedly prevented South African trucks from crossing the border.

Sasol, the South African energy giant, has been forced to repatriate its South African staff in Mozambique.

South Africa has been seeking diplomatic support from countries across the continent to defeat what South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane described as the "demon" of anti-immigrant violence

Source: Al Jazeera